Updated Fri, Aug 15, 2014 10:04 am
The International Gay Games continue this week in venues across Northeast Ohio. One issue that hangs over this, and all sporting events, is concern over HIV-AIDS. Its presence prompted sweeping changes in many sports. While drug cocktails are helping to keep more athletes alive, strict safety precautions are in force to protect against spread of the disease.
We didn’t know a lot about HIV in 1990 when Steve Harrington first tested positive. At the time, everyone seemed to be telling him his life was over --- from his doctors to experts on TV.
“I remember watching a talk show with the head of the Health Department for New Hampshire, and somebody asked her if everybody dies from HIV,” Harrington said. “And she said yes.”
24 years later, Harrington’s still here --- a fact he attributes to medication and a love of basketball, which keeps him physically fit and mentally focused. He’s in Cleveland, this week, competing in the Gay Games with his team, the Rimbos. Steve Harrington is one of a handful of athletes who have played in the Games ever since they were created in 1982. In those early days, he heard many misguided notions about the virus that lives in his bloodstream and threatens the immune system.
“It used to be that you didn’t want to handle doorknobs,” he said. “When I first tested positive, they said don’t eat raw vegetables, get rid of all your pets. My feeling was, those are part of the reasons I live.”
One long-standing misconception about HIV/AIDS was that it was exclusively a “gay disease”. We now know there are other ways to contract the virus, including the sharing of needles and unprotected heterosexual sex. Take the case of Los Angeles Lakers point guard Earvin “Magic” Johnson who shook the world of sports with a stunning announcement in 1991.
Johnson denied being gay and said the HIV came from numerous dalliances with women on the road. His retirement proved to be short-lived. Magic Johnson would go on to play in the 1992 NBA All Star Game. He joined the US men’s Olympic basketball “dream team” that same year, and returned to the Lakers for a short stint in 1996. Cleveland Clinic sports health expert Dr. Susan Joy said Johnson’s announcement and return to basketball led to major changes throughout professional sports.
“You saw officials calling time outs and making sure blood was cleaned up,” Joy said. “If you watch that now, they’re doing the same thing in terms of how they handle blood. You see the athletic trainers wearing very thick gloves, and someone’s cleaning the floor and they use disinfectant solutions appropriately.”
Due to medical confidentiality rules, athletes are not required to reveal their HIV status, so Susan Joy said universal precautions are taken for everyone in all contact sports, from the pros all the way down to the high school level.
“I think that’s just good safe practice for everything we face these nowadays, and with some of the super bugs that are growing out there, I just think you have to exercise caution when there are body fluids involved in a sporting event, and I think that, thankfully, sports have evolved to where the appropriate people exercise oversight over the younger athletes who may otherwise be pretty cavalier about it,” she said.
Although there still is no cure for HIV/AIDS, advances in medication have helped stabilize the lives of millions of people, including Olympic diver Greg Louganis, who revealed he was HIV positive in 1995. Speaking to an audience at the City Club of Cleveland, this past weekend, Louganis said he’s found some peace through a heavy rotation of medication.
“I wouldn’t wish my drug regimen on anyone,” Louganis said. “I take my meds in the morning; I take my meds in the evening. I don’t categorize it as manageable. It is what it is.”
Steve Harrington worries that some younger people have been lulled by the effectiveness of drug cocktails at keeping HIV at bay.
“It amazes me right now to hear kids having that feeling that it’s manageable, that it’s not a big deal,” Harrington said. “When I hear about a young person becoming infected, I just think it’s absolutely preventable and ridiculous that they aren’t taking precautions. This is no fun.”
The Rimbos have been struggling on the hardwood, losing their first four games, so far. But, after 24 years fighting this disease, it feels good just to be in the game.
“Exhausting,” he said. “It was fine. We played a division up from us and we knew that it was going to be a struggle, but we showed ourselves just fine.”